Genius and Suffering

 

Why are human beings never content? No matter how much civilization advances, no matter how affluent and secure we become, no matter how much knowledge and opportunity we amass, it’s never enough. Why? Because we know there’s more to be had. We know it can be better. The very thing that enables us to conquer the natural world — imagination — also robs us of an animal’s simple focus. 

Why are persons with extraordinary minds so often miserable when alone, even if they are genuinely joyful and amiable among others? Because they are forever taunted by their own vivid dreams and nightmares, by bold hopes, and by a thousand “What if…?” scenarios for every lost opportunity. Simply put, their appreciation of what is flounders beneath a relentless shadow of what could be.

Beethoven wrote in a letter: 

The true artist has no pride. He sees unfortunately that art has no limits; he has a vague idea how far he is from reaching his goal; and while others perhaps may be admiring him, he laments the fact that he has not yet reached the point whither his better genius only lights the way for him like a distant sun. 

When we listen to a great composer’s music, we hear only what he has created; the manifest reality. We might not feel, as he does, that something still isn’t right; that something about it is never quite right. The composer might not even know himself exactly what it is that fails to match his barely conscious idea. And how much greater that frustration becomes when one must rely on other musicians to voice the nuances of one’s own passions! So it must be for cinematic storytellers.

Actors must experience something similar to the uncomfortable impression of hearing one’s own voice in a recording or seeing oneself in a homemade family movie. I suspect that many of the best actors are hyper-attentive to every utterance and movement, and hypercritical while watching themselves on screen. Perhaps that torture is why a few have claimed to never watch the films in which they perform.

Whenever I watch the 2001 version of Ocean’s Eleven, I am struck by an exchange between Brad Pitt’s character, Rusty, and Linus, played by Matt Damon: 

Rusty: “Are you scared?”

Linus: “Are you suicidal?”

Rusty: “Only in the morning.” 

Though perhaps this insight is Pitt’s own, I would guess that it came from one of the scriptwriters. For depressed persons, the first and last moments of each day can be the most difficult, particularly for those who sleep alone.

In the morning, one often awakes from dreams. Those dreams might contain wishes or terrors, but either can be exaggerated in the waking mind by an artist’s inclination toward the dramatic. Any good storyteller develops the habit by telling stories to himself. A story connects objects and events by imbuing them with meaning. The artist dreams and then connects the dream, interpreting it, sometimes in a self-abusive way. 

In the night, it is natural for any person to reflect on recent events and make predictions about the following day. A depressed artist might torture herself with reimagined memories, lusting after what might have been in fine detail. When she reflects on her life, she might draw sweeping story arcs that tell a fatalistic tale of tragedy, whereas another person might simply and doggedly hope for better days. 

Happiness, sadness, and anger are greatly affected expectations and interpretations. Place 10 people in the same situation and they are likely to respond in as many different ways… some more dramatically than others. For a person whose livelihood depends on the appreciation of drama, a person who self-identifies primarily as a dreamer or an instrument of the artistic passions, ordinary experiences are often instilled with extraordinary significance.

Each of us has a story in his or her head that selects what character traits, what potentials, and what experiences are most significant. We qualify our lives according to what we imagine they could and should be. For some, life is a practical business. For others, it is a beautiful but terrifying drama.

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  1. user_1938 Member
    user_1938
    @AaronMiller

    By the way, I don’t mean to imply that an intelligent person necessarily suffers more than a dumb person, nor that geniuses (artistic or otherwise) are all self-abusive madmen. Rather, this is just my attempt to explain how bad psychological habits are particularly damaging to people with powerful imaginations. The more powerful the tool, the more damage it can do when misdirected.

    • #1
  2. Tuck Inactive
    Tuck
    @Tuck

    Aaron Miller: Why are human beings never content?

     From where did you get the notion that we should be?

    • #2
  3. EThompson Inactive
    EThompson
    @EThompson

    Why are human beings never content? No matter how much civilization advances, no matter how affluent and secure we become, no matter how much knowledge and opportunity we amass, it’s never enough. Why? Because we know there’s more to be had.

    I would argue that if one lives in a Western country that is constantly moving forward both economically and technologically, contentment can often lead to decline. Progress stands still for no one.

    Natural law defines the perpetual existence of The Power Vacuum; some country, some individual must always be prepared to fill it. Or to put it in the simplest terms: There are no free lunches.

    Ambition has accomplished many great things for the U.S. and for many millions of people around the globe.

    • #3
  4. Tuck Inactive
    Tuck
    @Tuck

    EThompson: Progress stands still for no one.

    LOL.  “Progress” is a romantic delusion.  Time stands still for no one. 

    • #4
  5. Nanda Panjandrum Member
    Nanda Panjandrum
    @

    Moving and beautiful, Aaron!

    • #5
  6. Julia PA Member
    Julia PA
    @JulesPA

    I don’t have any comment, but I enjoyed reading this.

    • #6
  7. user_44643 Inactive
    user_44643
    @MikeLaRoche

    EThompson:

    Why are human beings never content? No matter how much civilization advances, no matter how affluent and secure we become, no matter how much knowledge and opportunity we amass, it’s never enough. Why? Because we know there’s more to be had.

    I would argue that if one lives in a Western country that is constantly moving forward both economically and technologically, contentment can often lead to decline. Progress stands still for no one.

    Natural law defines the perpetual existence of The Power Vacuum; some country, some individual must always be prepared to fill it. Or to put it in the simplest terms: There are no free lunches.

    Ambition has accomplished many great things for the U.S. and for many millions of people around the globe.

     Very true.  As I often say, complacency kills.

    • #7
  8. Arahant Member
    Arahant
    @Arahant

    Aaron Miller: Rather, this is just my attempt to explain how bad psychological habits are particularly damaging to people with powerful imaginations. The more powerful the tool, the more damage it can do when misdirected.

    See how much easier this post should have been? Two of Claire’s rules were cut out half and to edit it again. This above should be your primary thesis and it should come out as such. As it was, you presented large swathes of speculation as if you knew something about the category of geniuses, creative or otherwise. Several of those statements had my hackles up. By the end, I was calmer, but there is much that you could have cut out and rewritten with the above as your prime thesis. I very much agree with this thesis.

    • #8
  9. Arahant Member
    Arahant
    @Arahant

    • #9
  10. Zafar Member
    Zafar
    @Zafar

    It’s unfortunate that glass half full is happier but glass half empty is driven to be more productive.

    • #10
  11. Midget Faded Rattlesnake Contributor
    Midget Faded Rattlesnake
    @Midge

    Arahant:

    Aaron Miller: Rather, this is just my attempt to explain how bad psychological habits are particularly damaging to people with powerful imaginations. The more powerful the tool, the more damage it can do when misdirected.

    This above should be your primary thesis and it should come out as such. As it was, you presented large swathes of speculation as if you knew something about the category of geniuses, creative or otherwise.

    On the other hand, offering mellifluous, entertaining speculation that people can disagree with vigorously may have more value in some settings than stating a boring truth that everyone will agree with. Arguably, Ricochet is such a place.

    • #11
  12. Midget Faded Rattlesnake Contributor
    Midget Faded Rattlesnake
    @Midge

    Zafar:

    It’s unfortunate that glass half full is happier but glass half empty is driven to be more productive.

    On the other hand, people who slightly over-estimate their own competence are usually more productive than people who under-estimate it.

    • #12
  13. Julia PA Member
    Julia PA
    @JulesPA

    Midget Faded Rattlesnake:

    Arahant:

    Aaron Miller: Rather, this is just my attempt to explain how bad psychological habits are particularly damaging to people with powerful imaginations. The more powerful the tool, the more damage it can do when misdirected.

    This above should be your primary thesis and it should come out as such. As it was, you presented large swathes of speculation as if you knew something about the category of geniuses, creative or otherwise.

    On the other hand, offering mellifluous, entertaining speculation that people can disagree with vigorously may have more value in some settings than stating a boring truth that everyone will agree with. Arguably, Ricochet is such a place.

     the thesis is the interstate, but the original post is the scenic back road path. 

    • #13
  14. Zafar Member
    Zafar
    @Zafar

    Midget Faded Rattlesnake:

    Zafar:

    It’s unfortunate that glass half full is happier but glass half empty is driven to be more productive.

    On the other hand, people who slightly over-estimate their own competence are usually more productive than people who under-estimate it.

     Sure, but are they happier?

    • #14
  15. Midget Faded Rattlesnake Contributor
    Midget Faded Rattlesnake
    @Midge

    Zafar:

    Midget Faded Rattlesnake:

    Zafar:

    It’s unfortunate that glass half full is happier but glass half empty is driven to be more productive.

    On the other hand, people who slightly over-estimate their own competence are usually more productive than people who under-estimate it.

    Sure, but are they happier?

    Usually over-estimating your own confidence leaves you happier with yourself than underestimating it. There aren’t a whole lot of people who feel good about feeling incompetent.

    • #15
  16. user_1938 Member
    user_1938
    @AaronMiller

    Midget Faded Rattlesnake: Usually over-estimating your own confidence leaves you happier with yourself than underestimating it. There aren’t a whole lot of people who feel good about feeling incompetent.

     Artists should avoid browsing YouTube.

    • #16
  17. user_1938 Member
    user_1938
    @AaronMiller

    Arahant: As it was, you presented large swathes of speculation as if you knew something about the category of geniuses, creative or otherwise. [….]

    Genius is a difference of degree. It is a greatness of normal qualities. I am a multi-talented artist with tendencies toward depression. That doesn’t make me an expert on creative geniuses. But I’m willing to make educated guesses.

    • #17
  18. Arahant Member
    Arahant
    @Arahant

    Aaron Miller: Genius is a difference of degree. It is a greatness of normal qualities.

    In one of Beam Piper’s books (Fuzzy Sapiens/The Other Human Race, I believe), one of his characters is trying to describe sapience and uses the analogy of its being a mentational boiling point. Below the line is normal animal intelligence and above is sapience. I sometimes wonder if genius is like that. It isn’t just one degree warmer, but goes through a phase change from solid to liquid or from liquid to gas. It is not a simple transition from having one IQ number to the next, a matter of degree. There are other qualities that a person has to have to make the genius come out. According to something I was just reading, Richard Feynman apparently only came out at an IQ of 125. That’s not even considered gifted. (Two sigma out or outside the 95% normal range.) So, he was not of abnormal IQ, only of abnormal levels of accomplishment.

    • #18
  19. Julia PA Member
    Julia PA
    @JulesPA

    Arahant:

    Aaron Miller: Genius is a difference of degree. It is a greatness of normal qualities.

    …I sometimes wonder if genius is like that. It isn’t just one degree warmer, but goes through a phase change from solid to liquid or from liquid to gas. It is not a simple transition from having one IQ number to the next, a matter of degree. There are other qualities that a person has to have to make the genius come out. According to something I was just reading, Richard Feynman apparently only came out at an IQ of 125. That’s not even considered gifted. (Two sigma out or outside the 95% normal range.) So, he was not of abnormal IQ, only of abnormal levels of accomplishment.

     I had never really thought of it, but maybe genius is not so much the IQ, but the way the owner uses their native tools of IQ, perceptions and then acts to manipulate the world to accomplish X. (whatever X might be, based on the owner’s drive and vision.)

    • #19
  20. user_1938 Member
    user_1938
    @AaronMiller

    Well, I don’t think it’s as simple as a tweak in logical aptitude, or memory, or imagination. Nor is it one way for every genius. In some cases, I’d say genius arises from the way various aptitudes within a personality are connected, in the way one cooperates with another or amplifies it. 

    Genius might typically involve some singular trait not found among the general population. But I don’t believe geniuses are completely beyond relation.

    • #20
  21. Arahant Member
    Arahant
    @Arahant

    And it is not required that one be depressed or manic-depressive to harness the tools of intelligence and drive, nor that one end one’s days by one’s own hand.

    • #21
  22. user_1938 Member
    user_1938
    @AaronMiller

    One interesting twist of the popularly noted connection between creative genius and psychological problems is that it stands to reason that some exceptional artists will fail in the struggle against their own demons. In other words, not every genius comes to light. Some are not merely forgotten by history — they are never even witnessed.

    • #22
  23. Arahant Member
    Arahant
    @Arahant

    Aaron Miller: Genius might typically involve some singular trait not found among the general population. But I don’t believe geniuses are completely beyond relation.

    That might depend on the genius. Someone like Feynman might have been fun to go out and pick up women with, for instance. Perfectly relatable for most non-genius guys (and even some women). Probably every genius has several human aspects like that that anyone can relate to easily enough.

    I also suspect that one of the aspects of genius may be the ability to communicate so that the average Joe can understand things that are fairly complex. But that doesn’t mean the average person can really relate to the ability to see the new vision in the first place, to comprehend what nobody else understood before. How does one relate how to do that? Can that really be taught or explained? Is it all a matter of steeping oneself in the existing knowledge and practicing? Is it a willingness to see what might be uncomfortable for others? What takes the genius over the line from what was to how everyone will now see things?

    • #23
  24. Midget Faded Rattlesnake Contributor
    Midget Faded Rattlesnake
    @Midge

    Aaron Miller:

    One interesting twist of the popularly noted connection between creative genius and psychological problems is that it stands to reason that some exceptional artists will fail in the struggle against their own demons. In other words, not every genius comes to light. Some are not merely forgotten by history — they are never even witnessed.

    Well, yes, in a way.

    But psychological problems aren’t the only difficulties genius (or talent, if you will – it’s a more neutral term) might confront. There are many problems – psychological, physical, situational – that can diminish what might have otherwise been outstanding talent. Such is life.

    For example, a promising gymnast who suffers a catastrophic injury or a hopeful opera star with uncontrollable asthma are in much the same boat. It stands to reason that chance occurrences prevent a lot of potential from reaching fruition.

    There are no pat answers, either. Saying that every time God closes a door He opens a window is cheap and simplistic. The struggle to make the best of the lot we’ve been handed is not an easy one, yet what other choice have we?

    • #24
  25. Arahant Member
    Arahant
    @Arahant

    There are also the quiet geniuses we have never heard of. Maybe they have the sort of IQ that means they could choose any field. They might even have extraordinary drive and ambition. But they choose a field that does not bring them any extraordinary attention. They live quiet lives pushing the boundaries of the world outward, and very few know that they are anything special. They aren’t the van Goghs or the Beethovens or the (insert your Hollywood genius here). Even their spouse and family may not know just what they have accomplished.

    (Side note: Not claiming any genius here, just the family not understanding, I once had my mother tell me, “I used to wonder how dumb some of these women were who had no idea what their children or husbands did for a living, but now I find that I really don’t know and can’t explain what you do.”)

    • #25
  26. Midget Faded Rattlesnake Contributor
    Midget Faded Rattlesnake
    @Midge

    Yeats once wrote a poem entitled, “To a Friend whose Work has come to Nothing”. It doesn’t completely generalize the experience of having work and talent come to nothing (for one thing, not all who experience such failure have a shameless enemy bringing them ruin, or crowds mocking them, as the narrator describes). Still, you might find it worthy of reflection:

    NOW all the truth is out,
    Be secret and take defeat
    From any brazen throat,
    For how can you compete,
    Being honour bred, with one
    Who, were it proved he lies,
    Were neither shamed in his own
    Nor in his neighbours’ eyes?
    Bred to a harder thing
    Than Triumph, turn away
    And like a laughing string
    Whereon mad fingers play
    Amid a place of stone,
    Be secret and exult,
    Because of all things known
    That is most difficult.

    [Emphasis mine.]

    • #26
  27. Foxman Inactive
    Foxman
    @Foxman

    Zafar:

    It’s unfortunate that glass half full is happier but glass half empty is driven to be more productive.

     If you just get a smaller glass the problem goes away.

    • #27
  28. user_144801 Member
    user_144801
    @JamesJones

    What’s interesting, though, is that a genius like Beethoven, while recognizing his limitations, is still able to produce greatness. One could imagine him getting so wrapped up in the flaws that nothing ever gets produced. So to be great, one has to be willing to not let the perfect be the enemy of the good.

    • #28
  29. user_49770 Inactive
    user_49770
    @wilberforge

    To quote…

    The very thing that enables us to conquer the natural world — imagination — also robs us of an animal’s simple focus. Why are persons with extraordinary minds so often miserable when alone, even if they are genuinely joyful and amiable among others? Because they are forever taunted by their own vivid dreams and nightmares, by bold hopes, and by a thousand “What if…?” scenarios for every lost opportunity. Simply put, their appreciation of what is flounders beneath a relentless shadow of what could be.

    Therein lies the rub of the complexity of not just the mind or one or more thought of as gifted, but the ability to interact with others.

    For all of the insights shared here, we as a species promote what can be easily understood by our peers in a given timeframe. Usually in a very selfish self preserving manner out of fear.

    It is a given that the “Them and Us”  thinking will continue with humans until the end of time. We will and cannot ever be  of one mind, for that spells the end.

    Embrace your selfcreated demons, become a better animal for that is your destiny.

    If not, you loose.

    • #29

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